Dances with Flowers

This year marks the 15th anniversary of the Quilt Gardens in Elkhart County, presented by the Elkhart Convention and Visitors Bureau. The concept of planting these flower gardens in quilt patterns began in 2007 with just two gardens. This year, there are 17 gardens in Bristol, Elkhart, Goshen, Middlebury, Nappanee and Wakarusa. To highlight the 15th anniversary, life-like Seward Johnson sculptures have been placed at Quilt Garden sites and many other locations around the towns where the gardens are located.

Wellfield was one of the “early adopters” of this program, planting our first quilt garden with the help of volunteers on the hill at the west end of Swan Pond, where the Island Garden pavilion “Yu Sui Te” (“pavilion befriended by waters”) stands now. Our quilt garden was moved to its current location near our parking lot in 2017 to ensure public accessibility. Whenever possible, we try to match our pattern to Wellfield’s annual theme: last year, we had the OrigamiintheGardens sculpture installation, so we used the “Peace Flower” pattern. This year’s theme is “Connections”, so we chose the current pattern: “Fresh Connections”.

I have been involved in planting and maintaining Quilt Gardens for this display for 8 years at Wellfield and other locations, and each year presents its own set of challenges. The planning for the following year’s garden starts almost as soon as this year’s garden is planted. The design must be an actual quilt pattern. A pattern can be chosen from a handful already selected by the Quilt Garden committee, or one can be submitted for their review. If the design is too intricate or detailed, it’s hard to display with flowers. I have found that big, bold patterns and contrasting colors are most effective.

After the pattern is finalized, the next step is choosing plants. Most often, flowering plants are chosen but I have seen some pretty awesome Quilt Gardens make use of parsley, coleus, and dichondra, just to name a few, chosen more for their foliage than flowers. There are several things to keep in mind when making these plant choice decisions. Do the plants we’ve picked like similar conditions? Does one like moist conditions and the other prefer dry? Some plants prefer sun and others more shaded conditions. Some flowers prefer cooler spring temperatures and tend to die out in the blazing heat of midsummer. Do these plants grow to similar heights? You definitely don’t want to end up with taller plants hiding shorter plants in the design, if you can help it. 

Another thing to consider is the soil composition and history of your planting site. Some plants can tolerate more sandy soil than others. Petunias, especially certain colors, need a lower pH or they become chlorotic, leading to discoloration of leaves and flowers. Some plants are more  susceptible to certain diseases. If you are aware of the presence of certain pathogens in the soil, it can also limit plant choices. At a previous Quilt Garden site, the flowers fell victim to a disease called Pythium. Certain soil borne diseases, like Pythium, can persist in the soil for years. Marigolds, in particular, are susceptible to Pythium, something I unfortunately learned the hard way.

After picking a pattern and deciding on flower/plant choices, we submit our plan to the Quilt Garden committee in September. They review our plan and may come back with suggestions or ideas. Plans are finalized by October, and a grower is selected to grow the types and numbers of plants we have chosen. Long before many of us are thinking about planting, the grower plants our order specifically for the planting date we have decided. Typical last frost date for our area is around May 15th. The Quilt Gardens must be planted by Memorial Day, so I decided on flower pick up the week of May 16th. 

From here on, a wrench can get thrown into the best laid plans. Our flowers weren’t ready by the 16th. Because of the plants being small, the grower and I decided to wait another week. When the plants arrived, I noticed some had diseased leaves that looked like Botrytis. Thankfully, Wellfield has an awesome team of horticulturists and volunteers who went to work removing diseased leaves and planting. The Quilt Garden was planted by the deadline. Temperatures eventually warmed, the sun shone and the rains fell. Plants rooted well, grew and started to bloom. As the flowers grew, the design began to emerge. It’s not unusual to see an errant flower occasionally, like a bright red bloom in a sea of white, so I didn’t panic when I saw one flower was the wrong color. As time progressed and others bloomed, I realized that a mistake had been made. One section of the Quilt Garden was definitely the wrong color. Hurried communication with the grower determined the correct color flower was available and set aside. Then I checked the weather forecast. Record breaking heat was expected and persisted. I couldn’t picture transplanting in record breaking heat ending well. To establish the transplants, we would have to over-water the rest of the plants and would, more than likely, end up with a fungal disease in the entire garden. I finally came to the realization we needed to let healthy flowers grow and let the mistake be. It will probably bother me more than anyone else.

We will fertilize, weed and trim, hoping to maintain the Quilt Garden in the beautiful design we intended for all who come to enjoy, all the while knowing that, at any moment, a wandering deer might find the blooms tasty. Or voles could take up residence, their own little bed and breakfast. Flea beetles may strike and suppress blooms, not to mention the damage aphids and thrips can do. The dwarf variety planted might end up three feet tall. Weather conditions beyond our control could lead to a variety of fungal diseases. All true stories and things I have encountered during my time working on Quilt Gardens. It’s a dance and a delicate balance. Every year is different, presenting a whole new set of challenges. Each season we learn something new. And every time we sit down to plan next year’s Quilt Garden, we hope it will be even more beautiful and enjoyable for those coming to see it than the year before. We hope you enjoy our 2022 edition!

Amy Myers, Horticulture and Facilities Manager

2 thoughts on “Dances with Flowers

  1. Janet

    Thank you for a very interesting article about the Quilt Gardens. I had no idea these gardens were such a big endeavor. I love the title of your article too.

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